Restaurant review: Paolo Tullio at Sabrosa, Dublin
When I first came to Ireland in my early teens, I did that quintessentially teenage thing -- aimlessly loitering around with my pals.
In my case, the hanging about took place on the pavements of Blackrock, where there was little to amuse, but there was a good chipper right at the top of the slight hill where the road divided.
It was, and I think it still is, called Central Café.
Just outside Central Café on the pavement was one of those Celtic crosses that had a thoroughly weathered appearance, suggesting great and venerable age.
If you go looking for it now, it's moved down the hill a bit to just outside the Bank of Ireland, something the council did a few years back.
Many years after I first saw it, I was told that it was a marker -- it marked the boundary between the civilised world of the Pale, and the wild, lawless world of the O'Tooles to the south.
Many years later, I ended up living in the heartland of O'Toole country in Wicklow, near their stronghold of Castle Kevin, which isn't as wild and lawless today as it once was.
And not long after I arrived there, it was pointed out to me that by shifting a letter or two in my name I could become Pol O'Toole, instead of the Italian version.
Just maybe I'd found my true heritage.
I tell you all of this because this week I was back in Blackrock. I wasn't loitering on street corners this time; instead I'd come with Marian Kenny to eat tapas.
Tapas bars are very much on the increase, they're opening up all over the country and for one very good reason -- a meal of tapas is easy on the digestion and easy on the pocket.
But now I'm going to put on my pedant's hat: don't assume that just because something is called a tapa it will necessarily be Spanish.
Like the majority of Italian restaurants, Chinese restaurants and Indian restaurants, the food that they sell will be made to appeal to the Irish palate.
What has been imported from Spain is the idea of tapas -- a way of eating lots of small and tasty dishes, rather than one big plate with meat, potatoes and two veg.
We'd come to Tonic, which is well known as a café bar, but recently they've opened up a tapas outlet called Sabrosa.
It's a simply furnished room, with wooden tables and chairs, and the main dining room seats maybe 35, with a room alongside for an overflow on busy nights.
As soon as we sat down we were brought cold water, warm fresh breads and menus. That's something that ought to happen every time you sit down in a restaurant, but it doesn't always. When it does happen, I feel it sets the tone of the service.
The tapas menu has about 15 dishes listed, divided into charcuterie, vegetarian, meat and fish dishes. They run from €5 to €8, which is pretty much the standard price for tapas.
Apart from the menu, there was a board of daily specials, which gave us another four dishes to choose from.
We decided that we'd be able to eat six tapas between us, so we ordered the patatas bravas, Spanish omelette, calamari rings, meatballs, charcuterie board and, one of the day's specials, seared tuna.
There was a short wine list with just 11 wines listed, the most expensive of which was €23. That's often the starting price on wine lists, rather than the top price, so, although the choice is limited, the prices are very affordable.
Neither of us was drinking that night, so we stayed on the sparkling water. The water we were served was Ferrarelle, which comes from my part of Italy, and for a moment it brought me a touch of nostalgia.
The first dish to arrive was the charcuterie, which arrived on a long wooden board with a selection of really good homemade breads, plus two dips: a black-olive tapenade and a sun-dried tomato tapenade.
If you weren't ravenous with hunger, this €8 tapa would go a long way to filling you, because there was a lot of it.
Next came the seared tuna. This was presented as two skewers, each with two chunks of tuna sitting on a well-dressed salad and served on a slate. Just as it said on the tin, the outside was seared and the inside was raw, which, to my mind, is the best way to eat tuna.
Next to arrive were the calamari, which came with a dish of lemon mayonnaise. Because Marian can't eat shellfish, I got to eat all of these myself.
What made this dish work well was that the calamari had been properly cooked and were tender. So often it can be like eating bicycle inner tubes cut into rings.
Then came the meatballs, omelette and patatas bravas. The latter is a dish I've often enjoyed in Catalunya, where it's a common tapa.
The potatoes are cubed and either deep or shallow fried, flavoured with smoked paprika and served with the 'brava' sauce -- a spicy tomato sauce. That's exactly how they came to us here.
The omelette, too, was well done, and Marian made short work of it. It was served, like the meatballs, in a terracotta dish, but my only disappointment of the night was the meatballs. For whatever reason, they had become as hard as bullets and almost as dense.
From where I was sitting, I had a good view of the kitchen through a wide service counter. Unusually, the head chef and sous chef were both female. I have no idea why this is unusual, but trust me it is.
We finished up our meal with a tea for Marian and an espresso for me, which brought our bill to a very modest €48.80. What you get in Sabrosa is excellent service and good value for money.
Tonic Bar, 32
Tel: 01-288 7671
On a budget
Two tapas would almost fill you, so you could have that, a basket of freshly made breads and a glass of wine and still get change from ¤20.
On a blowout
This is not so easily arranged. With the most expensive tapa costing ¤8 and the most expensive wine costing ¤23, the only way you can splash out is to eat a lot of tapas.